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Gay rights advocates promote changes in state law

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

By Peter Jackson, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- Invoking U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's name as a symbol of the repressive attitudes they say they are fighting, gay-rights advocates yesterday called on Pennsylvania lawmakers to outlaw certain types of discrimination against homosexuals and transgender people.

Two groups, the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force and the Harrisburg-based Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition, held separate news conferences at the Capitol to promote similar legislation that even proponents acknowledged was unlikely to pass this year.

Speakers noted the furor over Santorum's statements on homosexuality and the law in a recent interview with The Associated Press. He was criticized by gays and Democratic presidential candidates, but kept his seat as the Senate's third-ranking Republican.

Daniel Miller, who said he was fired from a successful career at a Central Pennsylvania company simply because his employer discovered he was a homosexual, said Santorum's comments suggested that homosexuality was "somehow contrary to family values."

"If it weren't for my family's support, I'm not sure I would have made it" through the firing and the expensive legal battle with his former employer that followed, Miller said.

Rabbi Peter Kessler of Harrisburg, who is gay and spoke at both events, said he was disappointed by lawmakers who "insist on using the Bible as a weapon."

"It is not safe in this state to simply be [the person] who we were created by God to be," said the Rev. Eva O'Diam, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Spirit in Harrisburg, which welcomes homosexuals and transsexuals.

Both bills would amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which bars discrimination in matters of employment, housing and public accommodation. They would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity or expression" to a list of protected characteristics that currently includes race, color, familial status, religion, ancestry, age, sex, national origin and disability.

The bills would provide similar protections in the state's Fair Educational Opportunities Act, which prohibits discrimination in post-secondary education.

Nationally, more than a dozen states have enacted laws to protect homosexuals from discrimination, but only a handful have similar protections for transgender people.

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Erie counties have gay-rights laws, as do several cities, including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown and York, but such discrimination remains legal in the rest of the state.

Neither of the back-to-back news conferences drew a large crowd.

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